Monday, May 11, 2009

Stand By Me

I was watching the movie "Stand By Me" this morning. You do things like that when you're banging your head against the wall waiting for a prospective employer to call or at least return your email - if they ever do. Suffice to say, being laid off and not having an income is a truly terrifying experience, so I don't recommend it for a career choice. The prospect of losing everything is very real. I guess I should blame myself. After all, I was an English and Film major and have spent most of my career in the banking industry. Go figure. I'd love to be a writer or something in the creative fields, but I don't have the professional experience. On the other hand, I don't have the Business degree required to get past some Human Resource Nazis. In a nutshell, I'm screwed.

Thinking back to the movie, I wondered what I wanted to be when I was younger. I was never one of those kids who wanted to be a cowboy, fireman or astronaut. I just wanted to be older and just sort of do what I wanted to do. I think the first thing I wanted to be was a zoologist. When I was about eight, my parents bought me a gigantic book of animals. It wasn't one of those cute little books with cartoons and giant fonts. It was very detailed, with intelligent language and beautiful color pictures. I ate it up. I was never much interested in insects, birds or monkeys. I found them relatively boring. I wasn't much for sea creatures, either, except for sharks. When you're a boy, pretty much the only animals that get you juiced are meat eaters - lions, bears, tigers, alligators, you name it. It's why the Tyrannosaurus Rex is still the most popular dinosaur around. No one knew about Velociraptors until Jurassic Park came out, so the T. Rex was always king. Sure, we liked the Stegosaurus and Triceratops, but, for pure fantasy and imagination fodder, nothing beat the King of the Dinosaurs. Then, one day, I was bitten by the neighbor's dog. I didn't like it. Mind you, this dog was probably 20 pounds, tops. I did some quick math in my head and realized lions were much bigger and would have no issue with destroying me. I decided I wanted to be something else.

I wrestled with the idea of being a baseball player. I wasn't half bad, but I wasn't half good, so that hope quickly died on the vine. I thought I could possibly be a hockey player. Now here, I thought, was a career I could sink my teeth into. I was really a very good street hockey player. I usually played against bigger kids, and although I would get bruised and bloodied, I scored my share of goals. Of course, professional hockey players need to be able to ice skate. I had three problems with this: 1) I had no access to an ice skating rink, 2) I didn't own a pair of ice skates and 3) I didn't even know how to skate. I couldn't even roller skate. I went to Spinning Wheels roller rink to attempt skating and looked like a newborn giraffe on an oil slick. At an age when you are desperate to look cool, I apparently went out of my way to capture the Biggest Dork trophy. I won the award so many times they renamed it in my honor. I'll have to remember to pad my resume with that little tidbit.

So there I was, at 14 years old, with no career aspirations. It's a good thing I started being interested in girls, because that was a full-time job unto itself, For me, it was hanging out in the woods with my troublemaker friends, going to the mall and being too painfully shy to ask out any girl I found even remotely attractive. Oftentimes, I would just put on my headphones and let my albums take me to far away planets, other worlds and places in my mind too fantastic to explain. By the time I was done, and my ears were swollen and ringing, I would be covered in sweat, disappointed I had to come back to reality. I guess I just sort of assumed I would go to college, graduate, and have some suit and tie waiting for me, as I walked off the stage with my diploma, to offer me a job. I was on cruise control.

Well, I did make it into college...and promptly flunked out midway through my sophomore year. The ship was sinking and I was fixing the leak by playing Frisbee and tapping kegs. Eventually, I learned my lesson and matriculated back to full time status. I even earned an academic scholarship. How do you like those apples? I had a friend named Lisa Vitale, and we used to write each other over the summer, back when people actually wrote letters. She asked what I was going to do for work one summer and I sort offhandedly wrote back, "I'll probably try find a job in a bank." By that time, my work resume was fairly impressive - paper boy, auto shop grunt, door man, grocery store bagger...I was obviously qualified. Well, it never did materialize, but I did make a name for myself as being one of the most unreliable bartenders to ever work a university bar. I always gave free drinks to pretty girls and friends - and I was surrounded by friends and pretty girls. Ah, youth.

The years stumbled by, and before I knew it, I had my college diploma in hand, I thought to myself, "Ok, Slick, now what?" I was stuck. I had no answer. I knew I didn't want to bartend anymore and the thought of working eight hours - in a single day! - was even less appealing to me. Well, eventually, I found myself in banking, doing collections. Hell, it was a paycheck, even though I hated talking to people on the phone - still do. Well, wouldn't you know it, a paycheck became a job which became a career in the banking world. It was like I was caught in an occupational slipstream. It was during this time I started developing a love for writing and creating. I was writing stories, skits, songs, dialogues, monologues, fables...I even started a screenplay, until my computer crashed and zapped it all to hell. I always had a head for numbers but I developed a love for words, too. I suppose there could be worse things than being able to work both sides of your brain equally well, but nearly impossible to find something on Career Builder or using those search words. All of this time applying and waiting can take its toll on you. I'm keeping weird hours, sleeping during the day and being wide awake all night. I think perhaps I have turned into a vampire. I mean, I do avoid mirrors and garlic - and I have to admit I have a badass coffin - but there's not much room for advancement amongst the undead and the pay is terrible.

I haven't given up hope, although it would be very easy to do so. I also won't be writing about this particular topic anymore. Hey, you folks have your own fields to plough. Even though I have the daunting specter of the unthinkable at my doorstep, I still allow myself the opportunity to revel in the joys of being human and alive. Sometimes, that takes the guise of watching a movie, going for a drive or meeting up with friends. Tonight, I think I'll unwind with some music. I'll connect my ear buds to the laptop, kick back and let the music take me on some mystical, cosmic adventure, beyond the stars, to the nether reaches of the galaxy and into deep space.

Life was simpler when we were younger. We all had hopes and dreams of what we wanted to be. How many of us can honestly say we have accomplished that? I know I haven't. You probably haven't, either. Tonight, I won't worry about being a banker, a writer or even a bartender. I won't worry about being unemployed. I won't imagine myself as a hockey player, zoologist or baseball player. In fact, tonight, perhaps I'll be something else, something I never saw myself being - aside from someone looking for a job.

Maybe, tonight, I'll be an astronaut.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Claymont Country Club

This is a funny little universe.

Every microsecond, our universe is expanding, throwing atoms, dark matter and sports radio broadcasts into the nether regions of the void, gobbling up cosmic real estate like a teenaged Donald Trump after his trust fund kicked in. Dialing back the scale a skosh, we humans also enjoy putting ourselves out there to the cosmos. Some of us move away - far away; some advance the common good of our fellow hairless apes with artistic, scientific or philanthropic endeavors and still others prefer to kick back against the monolith and lazily try to pick out silhouettes of past presidents in cumulus cloud formations. Me? Well, if you count picking up and moving to Cleveland for a year in the mid 1990s, I've worn each hat. You already know how I am solving the ills of society by writing about every rocking horse I trip over in the attic of my mind, but, allow me, for a moment, to celebrate the glory of the warm glow of home (I'm referring to the "monolith," for those justifiably trying to untie this wet knot of a paragraph).

Several weeks ago, I met up with some old friends from the Ghost of Middle Schools past. It was a glorious evening of reminiscing, laughing and hoping we didn't appear too old to each other, in between bites of coconut shrimp. At this mini get together, I met up with Fred Lang, Jeff Thawley and the former Donna Godfrey. I found the only major difference that had developed, for me, was not calling Fred "Freddy," as I had always known him. I have to admit, it took some doing. I solved my dilemma by making sure I only spoke in monosyllables. It felt like I was channeling Dr. Seuss. Turns out both Fred and Jeff were the same people I had always remembered them to be. With Fred, his personality and laugh is so infectious, you could parachute him into the palace of North Korea's grand poobah, Kim Il Jong, and after an hour or so, have the despot doing beer bongs and playing air guitar to April Wine's "Sign Of the Gypsy Queen." Jeff was the guy in school who was always smiling, irrepressible and upbeat, always quick with a joke and even quicker to laugh at yours. These days, he is a master crafter of wood who could build an entire bedroom set with some planks of wood and a few nails in the time it takes you to finish this sentence. Major points have to go to Donna, who graduated a few years after us and suffered through an evening of breathless immaturity that only occurs when old guy friends get together.

On the drive home, I played the events of the night in my mind over and over. It felt great to get together with old friends after a quarter of a century of putting whatever nonsense I created out to the world. I liked it. I liked it a lot. Like sneaking down to the fridge at midnight to grab a chilled Mint Milano cookie, I paused and cast a "do I dare have another?" eyeball back. It was at this point where I pulled on my self-righteous cloak and stood, with my fists dug into my hips, chin pointing skyward in a "Look to this day, graduate!" stance and announced to the Heavens, "that was pretty cool." I wanted to do it again. I envisioned more and more people from the old neighborhoods, old friendships rekindled and plans to build our own mini-empire. So, in my hubris, I created a "Claymont Country Club" site on Facebook in hopes of having a central information reservoir for our soon-to-be mob of people. The idea was to have people I knew in Claymont, during my school years, stop by Stanley's Tavern once a month for some socializing and catching up. Then, those folks would invite others they knew from the old neighborhoods (even if they no longer lived in the old neighborhoods. I don't.) so that everyone who came would know someone else there. It would be a rolling, floating reunion which would take us back in time to the days of hair metal, parachute pants and cruising the Valley. The only difference would be not relying on Bruce Lane's fake ID to buy us bottles of Mad Dog and cases of Budweiser.

In time, we would be able to meet for a Blue Rocks baseball game, a night of bowling or cookouts in Jeff's backyard (Jeff, if you're reading this, thanks in advance). You might be asking where all of this came from. Well, to be honest, I am part of a committee that is organizing out 25th year reunion. It's hard to believe it has been a quarter of a century since I was chased from high school, with my robes flowing and my diploma held high like a big foam "We're #1" finger. The administrative tasks involved in putting on a reunion can be a lot more difficult than they need to be, as the needs of the many supercede the preferences of the few. With the Claymont Country Club, I can organize activities or just be an attendee. No politics, no disenfranchisement, no hurt feelings. Nope, nothing but old friends showing up if and when they can and anyone can plan the next outing, if they wish. Our next get together, Friday, May 1, at Stanley's Tavern at 7:00 p.m., will have even more people than the first time. Ideally, it would be nice to do something once per month, but if people wanted to meet every other week, that's fine, too. It doesn't belong to me; it belongs to everyone.

Maybe, some time in the future, we will have enough of a base to take on things such as a group Walk-a-thon for charity, camping trips or capturing the majority in the state senate. Maybe we can get Fred elected President of the United States and bring about the end of civilization as we know it. Maybe we can cure cancer. Who knows? I'd be happy if we can just bring a smile to some familiar faces and let them feel young again, if only for a evening, the way the four of us did several weeks ago. No judgments on how bald, gray or fat we are, no comments about, "Hey, Kev, I see you're still pushing that '77 Honda around," no one holding grudges about losing the election for secretary of the French Club...unless there is a funny story behind votes being stolen.

Some call me sentimental, while others just call me mental, but there is a way to strike a balance of keeping your feet on the ground while your head is in the clouds. If you're going to dream, dream big, or why bother dreaming at all? Maybe someday we can have our own little meeting place, our own little proper country club, where old friends can meet without breaking open their kids's piggy banks to be a member. Maybe Jeff can build it. All he needs is a set of tools and a free couple of hours. And maybe, after hitting "Publish," these words will be thrown into cyberspace and emanate into the vastness of space, beyond our solar system, beyond our galaxy, beyond the nether reaches of any possible human detection, until picked up trillions of years into the future by a lone monolith, under which an alien suddenly bolts upright, inspired, and declares, "Hey, that cloud looks like Fred Lang."

Dream big.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Harry Kalas

There are people who say life isn't fair. People who would rather rue the bane than praise the blessing. The same folks who would turn over every stone to find the blame and hold it high over their heads, like an Olympic torch, than give grudging credit. Then, there are those who not only bring the sunshine - they bring the sun; and they bring it from the most amazing place: from within our very selves.

Harry Kalas died today. Typing it out like that does not make it any more real. Harry Kalas died today. No, it still does not register. For, as much as his passing hurts, his living heals. The rapid sobs, the runny noses, the chapped corners of our eyes stand as a tribute to the man who was more than just a local sports announcer - he was just as much responsible for those very same feelings for Phillies fans the world over when he finally - after 39 years in the booth - announced the final pitch of the 2008 World Series. We hugged, we cried, we celebrated into the night. We did it for ourselves, our team, our city. We did it for our children, our older relatives and to put in escrow to help us cope with the hard times ahead. But we also did it for Harry. In 1980, when the Phillies won their first World Series Championship, Major League Baseball did not allow the local broadcasting teams to announce the games on either radio or television. By 2008, it almost seemed incredulous to not have Harry Kalas at the microphone, lighting the fuse for millions of fans worldwide, to help send our city and our heroes into a legendary eruption of joy.

A lot has been said about Harry's technical abilities in letting the game play out. Like a virtuoso jazz trumpeter, it wasn't the notes he threw into the program, it was what he left out which made him special. His voice - that classic voice - calmed and mellowed even the most pessimistic fan. It was well-seasoned and smoky, like a fine single-malt scotch and it mesmerized the audience, who unconsciously kept the beat along with him; and then, in the blink of an eye, he would bring everyone to their feet. People would run in from their kitchens with the pots boiling over, scream into the telephone or even waddle with all their might with their pants by their ankles from the bathroom to see another strike out, a spectacular catch or game-winning hit. But it was his home run calls which will always echo in our memories when we think of Harry Kalas. His "Long drive!..." and "Outta here!" exaltations captured the attention and adoration of even the most casual fans as well as his staccato pronunciations of the players's names. Who, among the long time fans can't see the names Mickey Morandini, Mariano Duncan or even Bobby Abreu and not hear Harry's mellifluous voice smiling those very words? I know I can't.

Harry, and his best friend and former partner, Richie Ashburn, virtually brought baseball to entire generations of fans. He arrived in 1971, with the opening of Veterans Stadium, and with the advent of promotions, an increasing number of games on television and, finally, a very good team, brought us all along for the ride. For those fans who remembered the crushing heartache of the collapse of the 1964 Phillies, this version of the team in the 1970s provided hope and Harry and Richie brought us the cool and the color. I've always believed that when you played Penn State in football, you weren't playing against the Nittany Lions - you were playing Joe Paterno; with the Phillies, you weren't going to see the team as you knew it. You were seeing the team as Harry Kalas explained it to you. Through the good years and the bad, the one constant was Harry, as reliable as a comfortable pair of shoes - the very shoes he would lift you out of.

By all reports, Harry was an elegant man. To be sure, he was no saint, but how many among us can say we are? He knew how to treat the fans because he was a fan himself. And yet, in a town known for beating up others as readily as it would beat up itself, we always had Harry to let us know there was always another game, another season, another hope. Today, I am beating up myself for not watching or listening to a meaningless game in 1988, 1995 or 2002. To listen to Harry Kalas was to treat yourself to an extra slice of pizza, extra cheese on your steak sandwich or order the milkshake instead of the Diet Coke. He gave us a reason for tuning in. He gave us High Hopes.

I realize I am but one of hundreds of people who have, or will, write tributes to a great man who was great without trying to be. Harry was humble, gracious and always fan-friendly. From the garage mechanic to the CEO to the short order cook to the housewife to the young and the old to the rich and the poor, regardless of your race, heritage or religion, Harry Kalas belonged to everyone who heard his voice. For many, this is a day of sadness, a day to shed tears and call friends and family to share grief and try to support it with as many shoulders as you possible. It is unifying in its mourning of his death as it is the celebration of his life. After the pain eventually passes to fond recollection, we will still mourn - maybe not for ourselves, but for those too young to have known him. I feel sorry for those fans - living, deceased and those not yet born - who never had the chance to hear Harry Kalas call a baseball game. For those people, maybe life isn't fair.

As for me, having been a fan since Harry's early days with the Phillies, life will always be fair. The bad times will be countered by the good, and when I look back over my life many years from now, it will be the good times which will get me through the bad. One of those good times was having the Phillies win the World Series in 1980 and 2008. Sure, the team did it on the field, but Harry was the valet who chauffeured it to our hearts.

For Harry Kalas, that lovable uncle who always pulled a silver dollar from behind our ears, thank you. For all that you've given us over the years, we will never be able to pay you back, but knowing you, you feel the same way towards us.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Bird Is the Word

I have been thinking about this for a while. I always get the inspiration to write about it when I'm about a billion miles away from a computer, hobnobbing with celebrities or performing open-heart surgery. Yes - you guessed it - I'm talking about birds.

This is the time of year birds are either getting a late start on vacationing to the warmer southern weather or are hung up around Virginia thinking, "You know, it was 60 degrees here. Maybe we should just stay home and save some money this year." Every time I step outside, the sky is peppered with a multitude (love that word) of our feathered friends. They glide, meander and undulate like a giant winged serpent, shifting this way and that as if each bird was a single cell in a giant organism. It's pretty impressive, actually, and I would appreciate it more if I didn't have to see my car covered in some Jackson Pollock-inspired white polka dot disgrace.

That's something I'm not sure if I envy about birds or not. They can fly and poop at the same time. Not that I'm a fan of someone who can walk while doing that, but, I'll leave it to the great Mark Twain to bail me out here when he said, "Humans are the only animals that blush - or have a need to." I can only imagine the dialogue on the winds:

"Did you just poop?"

"You bet I did."


This very thought of horror strikes me whenever I walk through a parking lot - and it invariably ALWAYS happens in a parking lot. There I am, walking to my car, with no other people within a lion roar's distance and I'll see a bird cresting over a distant floodlight. Me. Bird. About a zillion acres of open sky upon which to fly. And wouldn't you know it - that damned bird will fly DIRECTLY over me. It happens every time. I can see it play out in my head as this demon bird spies me loping over to my car and he's looking at me like a frat guy does when a ditzy freshman girl brings her own bottle of tequila to the party.

"Oh, I'm all OVER this action!"

As soon as I see him, I spring into a labored sprint, my heart pounding like a giant Japanese Kodo drum, wind whipping through my unfortunately graying hair. The bird goes into his dive. I fumble for the keys, drop them, and accidentally kick them under the car. Smooth. The bird makes a pass and banks hard. I grab the keys and with the grace of Frankenstein's monster in a slam dunk competition, hoist myself up, unlock the door, toss myself in and slam the door as a giant Superturd splashes across my windshield. I look out the driver's side window at the things I bought still outside the car, do a quick cost-benefit analysis, and peel out, leaving my goods for some other brave soul to collect.

Scientists would have us believe dinosaurs were most closely related to today's birds. I'll spare you the scientific mumbo-jumbo, but let's just say they have a lot of compelling evidence. It set me to thinking. Every year, some new prehistoric fossil is discovered, debated and hypothesized upon. It's only a matter of time before we find skeletons for a Finchosaurus, Flamingoraptor or Tyrannosaurus Duck. It makes me wonder what a robin would be thinking, as it's sitting on a branch, watching me stroll on by:

"You know, about 60 million years ago, I could take you. Probably still can."

Don't laugh. If an eagle came screaming down at you, guess who would win? Here's a hint: it wouldn't be you. Their talons are so strong, they could crush your skull like a soda can. Fortunately, we don't have a lot of eagle-on-human fatalities in this country, but I'm not about to move to the Pacific Northwest to pick a fight in the upper branches of redwood tree, either. Then again, the bird world did deliver the dodo to our planet. Pleasantly stupid, like your typical American Idol voter, when the first human explorers landed, they greeted the arrival of their invaders:

"Jolly good! I see we've got some company!"

"Let's go and welcome them to our little island."

"They have strange feathers. We should not insult them with our intelligence. Let's act dumb."

Unfortunately, the recently-landed humans didn't have access to Wikipedia, so they interpreted their welcome as, "Please hunt us! Feed us to your dogs! Give us diseases! Oh, hell, just wipe us out entirely!" Being the infinitely noble creatures we humans are, they gladly obliged, because, as we all know, we always do what's best for nature and the environment. The Passenger Pigeon used to be as abundant as bed bugs on your college comforter - you know, the one you never washed. A migration could literally blot out the sun for several days. Before you could say, "You'll shoot your eye out, kid," gun enthusiasts started mowing them down in a spectacularly impressive display of feathered genocide until they were completely erased from our planet. Good times (unless you were a Passenger Pigeon).

Outside of hunting them for food or sport, poisoning them and eradicating their living environments, humans and birds have found a way to coexist for many thousands of years. Chicken is the most popular meat consumed in the free world. People eat duck, goose, ostrich, and if I had my way, Sylvester would have long ago chowed down on Tweety. It's only a matter of time before the tables turn and turkeys are shoving breading up our keisters and giving thanks every fourth Thursday in November.

But, they won't get me! I'm flying south.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009


I turned 43 today.

Now, for those of who have already seen this birthday come and go, it's no big deal, I'm sure. To be honest with you, there really is nothing significant about being 43. I'm already old enough to legally drive, vote, drink, see an R-rated movie and rent a car without someone older than me being present. I suppose I am rather ambivalent towards my 43rd year, as if I had just received a piece of mail addressed to "Occupant" or found a dollar bill in the pocket of an old jacket.

When I was younger, I always used Elvis Presley as my barometer for aging. Many a time I would play this game with my friend, Jim Anderson, where I would say, "Do you realize we are closer to Elvis's age when he died than we are to when we were 21?" Jim would fire back with, "Do you realize there are kids in college who weren't even born when we were at school?" This always elicited a shoulder-slumping "Whoa" that would make Keanu Reeves envious. I realize now that I have outlasted The King, thank you very much, but my contributions to society are just a hair shy of what he accomplished. This is where the proverbial rubber meets the road:

"What have I done in my life?"

The short answer is: not a damned thing. The long answer would read like a resume that pumps up your middling achievements so much you stand back and say, "Hey, I'm fairly incredible." We all know the truth, of course. We are greater than we think and yet not as great as we think. We tend to look at ourselves as the sum of our potentials and not what we have actually achieved; likewise, when we are self-critical, we favor looking at what we achieved short of what we have not yet achieved. Follow that? If you need a few minutes with a Rush record and a Rubik's Cube to figure it out, be my guest.

I'm not sure of what the average life expectance is today, but by the time I get there, it will be several years beyond where it is now, if all goes according to trends. I suppose by the time I am 80, the average person will live to be 100. Who knows, maybe some day people will look at Methuselah and cluck their tongues, saying, "Shame he died so young." Then again, there was no junk food in Antiquity, so perhaps Methuselah wouldn't have made it much past his teens if Cheetos, Ring Dings and Pizza Hut merchants were cluttering up the halls of the temple. It set me to thinking. Who have I outlasted? What great minds and artists failed to answer the bell of Round 43? How would I stack up with those people? Thought you'd never ask:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Died at 35. Wrote a few tunes, had a movie made of his life played by Pinto from Animal House and had more musical talent in his ear wax than 99.9% of the people making alleged "music" today. Me: I've had a bass guitar since 1982 and did the Snoopy Dance when I finally was able to play the opening of Pink Floyd's "Money" last year. Advantage: Mozart.

Edgar Allen Poe: Died at 40. One of the greatest modern writers in history, invented the mystery, wrote classic macabre poems, knew stuff about ravens and pendulums and stuff. Me: I can barely read. Advantage: Poe.

Bruce Lee: Died at 32. Played Kato in The Green Hornet, had a famous son who also died young, knew a few karate moves. Me: I can't sneeze without throwing my back out. Advantage: Lee.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Died at 27. Graffiti-artist-turned-great post-modernist/neo-expressionist painter, influenced a whole generation of self-taught artists, had the Lenny Kravitz look stone cold before anyone new who Lenny Kravitz was. Me: I don't even know how to write cursive anymore. Advantage: Basquiat.

I could go on and on. History, both recent and not-so-recent, is chock-full of people who probably accomplished more by the time they could pee straight than I have up to this very moment - or ever will. I guess not all of us were destined for greatness, except for maybe me, but maybe it's the reaching, the grasping, that makes us great. Think on this: everyone considers their children to be special. Your parents considered you to be special, too. If all of us were special as children, then it stands to reason we are special as adults. If all of us are special, then none of us are special. If none of us are special, at which point in our lives did we cease being special? Think about that for a while.

Me? I'll be playing with my Rubik's Cube.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Claymont, Part 6 (Final Installment)

This is my last entry in the Claymont series. I have received some wonderful comments, both written and unwritten, so to those people I say thanks. To those who have not shared their thoughts but read the stories anyway, I thank you as well, regardless of your opinions. When I first sat down to write something about Claymont, I honestly did not have a plan. I predicted I would write six installments but honestly had no idea what would comprise those efforts. I suppose I was challenging myself to come up with something off the cuff and creative, and hopefully, I have been able to do that, in some small way.

I hope I have not alienated any denizens of our little town, past and present, by excluding people, places or events that anyone might have hoped or expected to see. But, maybe, just maybe, by not including these items, purposely or not, it has inspired reflection, conversation or debate. Our memories are our own personal scrapbook, and they fill in the gaps between the yellowing photos, diaries and home movies. Life isn't about the big moments, but rather the small ones. I suppose it's the reason why I wrote my first "thing" in the last five minutes of the last class of the last day of my Senior year. I was sitting in Mr. Simpkins's class, waiting for the big hand to hit the finish line when I wrote my first poem, or limerick, if you will, on the desktop with my trusty #2 pencil. It went like this:

Here I sit, slightly jaded;
The days of my youth are almost faded.
Reflecting, I find
In the depths of my mind
Those memories before they have faded.

No, it's not Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar' or even Bob Dylan, and I'm ok with that. It was, however, the first foray into an accidental passion, which has enveloped me these past 25 years.

The Claymont I knew was Greentree, Ashbourne Hills, Radnor Green, Knollwood and the acreage around the high school. It was the train tracks running behind Plum Tree Lane, the baseball fields behind Darley Road Elementary School and the fields behind the high school. Yeah, it seems like everything I enjoyed was behind something else I enjoyed. It was Howard Booker, Ron Messer, Scott Carey and I driving down to Ocean City, Maryland, to watch the high school's Flaming Arrow Marching Band compete in a regional competition. It was Tommy Carroll, Geoff Bishop, Scott Frizzell and I having pizza on my birthday. It was "buying" Jimmy Coffey and Gordie Knowles at the "Freshman/Sophomore Sale" and making them race down the hallways of the school pushing a peanut butter cracker with their noses. It was my first kiss with Carol Tenshaw, street hockey with Ray Butler and playing Dungeons & Dragons with Freddie and Donie Lang. It was watching Penn State beat Miami for the National Championship with Wayne Jamison and Rod Reeves, smoking clove cigarettes with "U-Dog" Seth Andrews and sitting in class with Nicole Williams, making each other laugh so much it hurt. It was putting a spider on Susan Coulston's desk just to watch her scream, having my heart skip a beat every time I say Kelly Deardorff and having my first beer with Mike DeBevec and Wayne. It was all the fantastic school plays put on by Alan Ruth, the bubbly effervescence of Ellie Kwick, and the bone crushing handshakes of Darley Road principal Mr. Lipka and Mr. Miller, the Vice-Principal at P.S. duPont. It was a head-ringing collision at first base that started a friendship with Scott Strazzella, the Little League legend of John Lucas and playing bombardment in gym class. It was trading baseball cards with my second grade teacher, Mrs. Jordan, learning how to write a check in Mr. Evans's class and hitting the highway with Mr. DiStefano and Ron Inglis during my first Driver's Ed road test. It was the wild ebullience of Albert Bucci, the comedy stylings of Eddie Finnegan and the sharp, aggressive humor of John McInnes. It was the warmth and intelligence of Lisa Chieffo, the sincere humanity and compassion of Martha Schilling and the sweet darkness of Billie Carroll, who has only improved with age.

It was my family, my friends, my acquaintances and those who only passed through peripherally. Not everything was daisies and sunshine, to be sure. That's a funny thing about memory - we seem to filter our past through nostalgic eyes, weeding out the bad so we can caress the good. For some reason, I remember the arcane, like how "Seasons In the Sun" was Michelle Lenhoff's favorite song, drinking a Big Gulp filled with Rum & Coke while taking my Biology midterm and the words "Wisdom had no market value" spray painted on the Darley Road overpass. I'll never forget driving around with Ron Fagnelli, Scott Waldman and my brother in Ron's bright yellow muscle car, delivering the Evening Bulletin with Ray and not being invited to Barbara Davis's famous parties in elementary school. And finally, about six or seven of us cramming ourselves into Bruce Lane's little car, Bandit, on the way to school, riding the bus on the first day of Desegregation and the cosmic marveling at the high school planetarium.

Well, that's not finally. I could probably dredge up a thousand more memories, but I'm sure you have your own. That's why this last installment is for you. To anyone else out there who remembers the old Claymont, don't hesitate to add your own stories. I am not the only person to chronicle his or her experiences of our little town. We all have a voice, and it doesn't matter if you can write or think you can't. The important thing is to share, in your own way, your memories, good or bad. We are all amalgamations of our past, the events and people who have moved through our lives.

Thanks for letting me move through yours.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Claymont, Part 5

This was to be the big day. I couldn't believe that I was chosen to pitch the Little League Championship game. After all, I was the team’s first baseman and had only pitched a couple of late innings in a few games that were hopelessly out of reach. But, still, I was uprooted from my treasured position of first base and thrust into the limelight of being the pitcher for our championship match with the hated, vile Braves. This should have been the realization of a fantasy come true, yet I did not embrace it as eagerly as I would have thought. All through the summers of years past, my friend Ray Butler, and I, would play our “dream” games with all-too-predictable, yet still satisfying conclusions: the bases-loaded strikeout in the bottom of the ninth, or the full-count grand slam in game seventh game of the World Series. From morning till night we would play using baseballs whose covers were badly abused from constant use, their pine-battered husks hanging like tongues in the sticky summer air. Even in the evening, the bright lights from nearby Dyer Field, where the older Babe Ruth League kids played, illuminated our quiet, friendly little diamond, giving us at least two more hours of quality baseball.

A little bit of history about Ray. We met one rainy afternoon. My mom was walking me back from Darley Road Elementary School after registering me for Kindergarten and it really started coming down hard. We were halfway up South Walnut Tree Lane in Greentree when a dark station wagon, driven by an eternally smiling woman, drove up next to us. In the back seat was a kid my age with a crew cut and a look of eager determination. It was Ray, and from that day forward, we were the best of friends. Through the years, we embarked on many a mission, most of which would make my mother's hair turn white if she found out. Like the times Ray would steal money from his mom's purse so we could grab a pizza at Vinnie's. Whatever we didn't finish, we would throw at cars, along with crabapples and snowballs, depending on the season. Other times, we would place nails in the street and sit on the curb watching cars run over them. In Winter, we would cruise the neighborhood at night, wielding baseball bats, looking for snowmen to obliterate. But, Ray's favorite thing to do was go into the utility rooms of the local apartment buildings and turn off all the power. I'd be standing outside when there would be a low hum, followed by complete darkness, then the sight of Ray, laughing that maniacal laugh of accomplishment, as he burst through the front door of the building.

But one thing about Ray most people never understood was the fact he wasn't an aggressively evil kid. He wasn't the kind of person to try and intimidate strangers. He only lashed out at those people who gave him a hard time, but to go blow-for-blow with Ray was a mistake. He was endlessly resourceful and constantly scheming. When Ray and I performed mischief, it wasn't because we thought it would harm another human being; rather, it was the fact most of the mischief occurred without a direct victim in our presence that made it exhilarating. For instance, Ray acquired a habit of stealing hood ornaments and license plates. Once, after he was caught, one car was all the way in Massachusetts before he discovered his plate was missing. He would take freshly arrived Playboy magazines from the local Wawa store and hide them in newspapers when he brought them to the counter. Sometimes, we would take discarded Christmas trees from the curb, drag them to the apartments, lean them against a person's door, ring the doorbell and run. He was a menace to all decent people, so maybe that's why we got along so well. One time, while his mother was sitting on the stoop talking to a neighbor, Ray emptied a bucket of water on her head from the upstairs hallway window. I'm just giving you the diluted stories here. In another medium, and after all the proper legal releases have been signed, I have many more stories about Ray. Many, many more.

Anyway, because of an egg-throwing incident, Ray’s parents did not allow him to play in Little League that year. We were both eleven years old and at the supposed prime of our lives and I knew how badly he wanted to play. All I could do during the games while smoothing the dirt around first base would be to watch Ray watching me between pitches as I impatiently awaited a ground ball or pop-up. Mom and Dad would attend a few games and every now and again my older brother, Dave, would drop by for a few innings. Dave was a good player. The year before, his team not only won the championship, but he actually pitched it. He received his gold-sprayed trophy at the year-end banquet and strategically placed it at various locales in the house as a conversation piece. Most of the time, Dave was the initiator of the conversation.

Now, it was my turn to pull on the stiff, dingy, gray Claymont Little League uniform. The material itched like burlap dipped in wet sand, and on top of that, I was issued number 13. This was Little League. However, it seemed everyone was doomed to wearing a gray uniform a size too big. My team was the Royals, who lost to my brother’s team, the Cubs, for the championship the year before.

When camp broke for our first practices, I immediately marked off the first base area and claimed it in my name, guarding it like a pit-bull against all comers. I looked over the team as our names were being called out by Mr. Shaffer, our coach: “Richard Cross” – I hated him, he thought he was a tough guy – what a jerk; “Liz Woods” – oh great, a girl, for Christ’s sake; “Bobby Cook” –wonderful, the neighborhood thug; “Bunky Hogan” – what kind of name is “Bunky?” They probably thought I was a creep, too; and I probably was. The other teams in the league got the popular kids. I got skid row. Our “stadium” was a chain link fence leaning on cement-encrusted poles with an infield that looked like Normandy Beach on D-Day.

The season opened with the distribution of a fifteen-game schedule which mapped out game times and opponents and probably adorned every Little Leaguer’s refrigerator along with report cards and their mother’s homemade kitchen magnets. The Braves were the team to beat, but no one could beat them. Halfway through the season, the league decided to split the schedule into two halves. The winners of each abbreviated schedule would then battle it out for the championship. With our club adrift at 4-4, we couldn't be happier. The Braves, at 8-0, didn't care for it too much, but no one liked them anyway. My play was gradually improving, yet I would still blame my blatant errors on others and vehemently argue a low-ball strike even if I DID swing at it. Striking out was never cool. It was even worse when that cute girl, Marie London, was watching.

Coming to the conclusion of the second half of the season, we were tied for the lead with, who else, the Braves. I hit a home run against them that I still force people to hear me describe. There was going to be a one-game playoff. If they win, it’s all over. If we win, it’s playoff time. Legend has it that the game was a bloody street brawl replete with Olympian virtue, superhuman fortitude, and otherworldly stamina. Actually, we won 6-5 in a rather dull, yet close-scoring game.

After the game, I played Home Run Derby with Ray. Even though I played Little League, Ray and I could always squeeze a few hours of playing Home Run Derby into the day. The rules were simple: whoever hit the most over the fence after 100 swings was the victor. The simple accomplishment of being able to choose one’s own pitches to swing at, without the hindrance of an umpire, and the complete absence of pressure of a game situation, made these contests relaxing, and gave us an outlet to play baseball at our own pace.

Going into the best-of-three championship, the talk through the hallways in school (school ended in late June that year) was how badly we'd get stomped. They “let us off easy” so they could bludgeon us in the playoffs. And they did in the first game. They beat us so bad that coach put me in to pitch the final two innings. They didn't score on me, but I thought nothing of it. Someone else obviously did. The second game entered the bottom of the seventh (and final, in Little League) inning with us tied 12-12. I was on third base, and if I were allowed to steal, I would have blazed down the line. The pitcher threw a wild pitch and I scored the winning run. Or so I thought. The Braves’ coach said I left too soon and I was duly ejected from the game while introducing the umpire to some of my recently acquired X-rated vocabulary. Bobby Cook moved up on the pitch and scored on another wild pitch. We won, but I was not the hero this time. To make matters worse, Ray was grounded that day for batting golf balls into the neighborhood from his front step.

As I kicked my glove along the path leading away from the diamond, Mr. Shaffer called to me in a voice that rattled my bones “Kevin, come over here!” On no. I'm kicked off the team for sure. “Kevin, I want you to pitch Friday’s game. Can you do it?” I was flabbergasted I called everyone who possessed a seven-digit phone number to inform them about my pending opportunity, but the first person I called was Ray. He promised me he would be there – that’s all I needed to hear.

The next afternoon, Ray convinced his mom to let him see me play. Dad, the shutterbug, took a picture of Ray and me out front of my house. Before the game, as I was wont to do, I would have a catch with Ray rather than my teammates. I was more comfortable throwing to him. Also I could always count on him to chase the ball whenever it went down the hill beyond the right field fence. After four innings, we were up 8-1, due to some clutch hitting on our part and bad fielding on theirs. I wasn't throwing smoke, more like a shot-put motion, but at least it was working. By this time, my brother Dave ventured over to the other field to talk to some girls. Mom and Dad returned home and the crowd was thinning out. Still glued to his seat was Ray. Even when the game ended in a stunning 12-1 rout, the first person I celebrated with was Ray, as the euphoria spread throughout the dugout. I received my little brass trophy labeled “Champions” and proudly displayed it in the various locales Dave so unknowingly mapped out for me.

A few years later, Ray moved to Florida. My trophy ended up in a box in the basement with some junk from my old desk. Last I heard, Ray was jail and I don't remember why. We haven't talked for years, and, for all I know, he might be dead. In fact, I think he is. I came across the old box of junk recently. Inside, I found my old trophy, the old game ball from that memorable afternoon, more junk, and the tattered, dog-eared photo taken of Ray and me on the day of the championship game. I put the trophy, the ball, the junk, back in the box. But I'll always keep that photo near me for the rest of my life

Monday, January 19, 2009

Claymont, Part 4

Claymont is a place of character and characters. From the Darley House to the Walking Monk to Knollwood to the civic pride that took a hit when the high school closed in 1991, Claymont has always had a reputation as a small, feisty town willing to drop the gloves with anyone who would speak ill of it; well, as long as you lived outside of Claymont. For those of us who have lived and still live there, we can badmouth it all we want. It's like family. I can call my brother a jerk, but if you do, I'll knock your block off.

One of our biggest points of pride has been in our eating establishments, and I think anyone who knows anything about cheesesteaks will agree, the Claymont Steak Shop made the best, not only in town, but also in the entire universe. I haven't been there in a while, so I cannot vouch for it's present quality, but when I lived was the closest thing to a naked disco for your mouth. The steak was chopped so fine and savory, the cheese was the perfect texture and the roll... Well, one thing we East Coasters ALL know about the cheesesteak is the fact the roll MAKES the sandwich. More than the meat or the cheese, it was the roll that provided the ultimate whammy when your lower mandible collided with your upper row of teeth. Wresting the sandwich from your jaw was the ultimate in penultimate glory. The final bell was the bite remaining in your mouth, like a prisoner at a firing squad awaiting his doom. For a split second, your brain switches on and all the senses heighten to such a degree your face changes color. That first chew, like the first sip from a cold beer or the first drag from a fresh pack of cigarettes, is indescribable to outsiders. I've had cheesesteaks from all the best places in the state and the Philadelphia area, and there have been some fine, fine sandwiches, don't get me wrong; however, none could ever compare with a Claymont Steak Shop offering. None. In fact, even ESPN the Magazine had an article about 10 or so years ago stating the "100 Things You Must Do to Be a Fan." Besides catching a foul ball (done) and running with the bulls (um, no), grabbing a cheesesteak from the Claymont Steak Shop and hauling it to the Vet for an Eagles or Phillies game was on the list. Don't believe me? Last I checked, the article was still on the wall at the restaurant.

Some things, sadly, have passed on into memory. Remember Gino's? It was a fast food restaurant similar to Burger King and McDonald's. It was located in the same shopping center as Hoy's 5 & 10. I always ordered the Gino's Giant. Remember the commercial? "Everybody goes to Gino's, cause Gino's is the place to go-o-o..." Ok, it's not Shakespeare. Hell, it's not even Rain Man, but I remember they would show crayon pictures sent in by kids at the stores. Mine never made it to TV because, well, honestly, I never submitted one. Gino's was replaced by Roy Rogers, which was replaced by...well, I'm not sure. Maybe I'll check it out next weekend. I remembers my friend, Brian Tucker, worked at Roy Rogers. Brian was a good friend until he told us he couldn't play hockey one day, so my best friend, Ray Butler, and I smashed his trashcans with our hockey sticks. Good times. Sorry about that, Brian. I'll tell you about Ray in the next installment. I could write a book about our adventures. Stay tuned. You don't want to miss that.

Besides the Claymont Steak Shop, there was one other place you could get what amounted to a legendary sandwich - DiCostanza's. Those weren't just hoagies they made. They were lunch meat sandwiches the size of telephone poles. It's the kind of sandwich Paul Bunyan would eat all day long before saying, "Ok, I'm out," still leaving half a hoagie to carry home with him. He would never offer any to Babe the Blue Ox, because, let's be honest here, Babe was no cannibal. Babe was also a herbivore, so it's a mute point anyway. This sucker was SO packed with meat and cheese that the roll could only close over half of it. Once, I was carrying one home, accidentally dropped it on the street and it created a hole so large in the road a fire truck fell in. I never heard the crash at the bottom so my guess it's still falling through the Earth's core. Somewhere, Satan is hiring a whole pit of demons to jump on the roll like an over-packed suitcase just so he can take a bite. Oh, and this was a small hoagie. DiCostanza's - or Deke's for short - could feed the entire population of China and Japan for several generations with one sandwich, and that includes the Sumo wrestlers.

I have so many memories about my old hometown without a mayor, and the food joints that etched those memories. Believe me, I received just as much enjoyment out of trying (and succeeding) to eat a Big Mac in three bites in the McDonald's parking lot with my other best friend, Rod Reeves, Harry Dougherty and Dave Stepanek, late night chow fests with Wayne Jamison and Seth Andrews at Howard Johnson's, going to the Totem Pole with my first real high school crush, Alicia Kulp, to buy whatever candy could rot my teeth and eating hot dogs and Swedish Fish on the bleachers with Ed Chichorichi and Scott Strazzella after one of our Little League games. And let's not forget the inimitable enterprising James Priester, Jerry Lee and Nate McQueen, who used to make a mint selling candy they bought with lunch money and selling it to us in school at a 500% mark up. Food is life; food is family. It springs to mind old memories and forges new chapters.

Today, all I really get to see of the old town is my brother Dave's house and my Dad's. The ghosts of people and places from the past still echo soundly through the transom of my mind. My senses are ever keen and I can still hear the rustling of the thin wax paper from the hot dogs at the Little League concession stand, the magma-like heat of hot chocolate on a crisp Autumn afternoon watching Claymont High School battle another Flight B opponent at the football field, the awe-inspiring sight of a banana split being delicately handed over from the driver of the Custard Hut truck and the heft of the pears we used to steal off the trees from a house just off the railroad tracks while being chased by the owner. But, smell is the sense that keeps boomeranging our senses. Studies have shown the sense of smell is the one most strongly associated with memory. Even today, when I smell a funnel cake, I think back to the days of pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the coffers of the Holy Rosary Carnival. All in all, I don't regret a single nickel I have pumped into the local economy over the years because it has paid me back many times over in the memories it has created. I think maybe I'll go visit my brother Dave next weekend for some light reminiscing, as only siblings can do.

And yes, I'll bring my wallet.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Claymont, Part 3

As I might have mentioned before, I graduated from Claymont High School in 1984, and if I didn't mention it, well, there you go. It's hard to believe it has been a quarter century since I was worried about my senior thesis, taking my SATs and pressing in my fake-me-out mustache for the senior portrait. The passage of time brings with it perspective - a perspective that isn't available when you're 18 years old for the simple fact you think you know everything there is to know about the world at that age. I regarded my high school years with equal parts of enjoyment and out-and-out disdain. Looking back now, I wish I had the perspective of my present mind set. I would have done more, taken more chances and maybe, just maybe, actually studied.

High school is a little community unto itself. The characters, socializing and the teachers. Ah, the teachers. Is there a more thankless job in the civilian world than teaching high school students? For anyone out there presently in high school who may actually be reading this, you'll realize in short order just what an annoying, hormonal drama-monger you are right now, when a few more years pass. Teaching is the equivalent of being a first-time lion tamer except it happens every day at the chalk board. Throughout my life, I have had some fairly nondescript teachers, but I have also had some extraordinary instructors, as well. Ron Eshleman was my 10th grade Science teacher. To get an idea of who he was, try to imagine Emeril Lagasse without the Cajun patois. The man was brilliant and had boundless energy. He demanded accountability and knew his stuff, but the thing I remember most fondly about him is what he told us on the first day of class - "People (teachers always called the students "people"), I don't care if you walk out of here at the end of the year knowing absolutely nothing about science. What I hope you are able to do, however, is learn how to THINK." It's a funny thing, though. I actually do remember a lot about that class and not just because of the handy mnemonics he gave us. But, if you stepped out of line, he really gave it to you. Once, when he was describing how two Nitrogen (periodic symbol "N") split into two, I said, under my breath, "Hmm, split Ns," he wheel around and rocketed a piece of chalk at me that split into a zillion pieces over my head. He said, "You know, for a jackass, you're pretty good." Then he pointed towards the door and I had a chance to socialize with the principal, Mr. Fred Wrigley, for the 100th time.

Fred Wrigley. I'm not sure if this is true or not, but legend had it he was a drill instructor in a previous time in his life. It certainly wouldn't surprise me. Infamous for the way he bellowed the word "soph-o-mores!" to us clueless locker jockeys, the man was a take-no-guff disciplinarian. However, he was one of the kindest, most compassionate people I had ever met at that age. Each year, the senior class would pull what is known as the "Senior Stunt." The class of 1983 filled up Mr. Wrigley's office with 1,983 balloons. It was quite a sight. In fact, it made the front page of the fledgling USAToday, with Mr. Wrigley sitting at his desk surrounded by a mass of inflated latex. As a member of the class of 1984, there was no way we were going to top that, let alone get national exposure, so we decorated his ceiling with 1,984 Wrigley's gum wrappers. Lame, I know, but the gesture had to be made.

Sadly, Mr. Wrigley passed away not long after I graduated. His place was assumed by James Bruton, who had a bit of Smothers Brothers-type routine with the math teacher, Donald Fantine. The two of them were strict taskmasters, but, when the atmosphere was more relaxed, they were like a well-polished comedy team, lobbing hilarious insults at each other and generally adding a lot of color to the hallways. I could really write for hours upon hours about the memorable teachers I had, but for those who attended dear old CHS, you remember them, and for those who did not, you probably had similar people in your educational staff. Without referring to my heavily dust-covered yearbook, I would just like to thank the following teachers off the top of my head for making me the person I am today - for better or worse: the vivacious Susan Stetler, the booming Grant Dunn, the patient-beyond-reason William Chipman, the favorite uncle-type James Ruth, the kindly English teacher James Brasure, the motherly Virginia Burins, the uncompromising excellence of Michael Roccia, the eagerly determined Helene Jouan, the whimsical Robert Guy, the mystical Donald Crawford, the lovable grouchiness of one of the best basketball coaches in the state, Tom DiStefano, who had the unenviable task of teaching me to parallel park, the laid-back brilliance of Rich McKinnon, the bubbly effervescence of the late, indefatigable Gertrude Jenkins and the genuine enjoyer of life, art teacher and senior class advisor, Alan "Bags" Ruth, who, until the day I die, will remain one of my favorite people of all time. Lastly, the teacher all CHS alumni will never forget, the person I could not stand as a student until my last day of class as a senior, when it dawned on me just what an incredible personality he was, Mr. Howard Simpkins. Mr. Simpkins was a taskmaster extraordinaire, with a haircut from a 1950's industrial arts classroom video, rocket scientist eyeglasses and a system of demerits that would bring a Hell's Angel to his knees. He was one of those guys who wore a short-sleeve shirt and tie. It's difficult to elucidate the level of influence he has had on students over the years, and even me, a lover of words, cannot find the exact words to convey just how valuable the life lessons he taught us. To Mr. Simpkins, Mr. Eshleman, all the teachers of CHS, my previous teachers and to all teachers, past, present and future in this world, my sincerest thanks and appreciation. No matter what they are paying you, it is not enough.

Like any high school, cliques develop and evolve. I had a few which I rotated through, like most people seem to say ("I never really belonged to any one group; I got along with everyone." Sound familiar?). The big, broad clique, the kind represented in every high school-based movie of white kids, was always the most eventful. I suppose it's why so many movies are based on that social grouping. We would hang out behind the high school on crisp Autumn nights, passing around half pints of Jack Daniel's, watching the youth football leagues or playing Frisbee and chewing tobacco in the parking lot of Gebhart's Funeral Home or infest the McDonald's on Philadelphia Pike, having a great time laughing, cutting up and soaking up the magnificence of youth, all the while complaining how bored we were. The events of the season, however, occurred when someone's parents went out of town. Everyone descended upon that house in a Bacchanalian eruption of unleashed exhuberance. Whether it was Lynn Newton's house, Mark LaVere's or the epic festivals at Marie London's, everyone who was everyone, in our world, was there. I remember bringing a loaf of Italian bread to Mark's house because, whenever I drank, I would develop a humongous appetite. As if I didn't normally attract my share of derisive gazes, the Italian bread was the clincher. The fact Mark's house was smack dab next to the park was a dangerous formula. Imagine a horde of drunken high school students on the swings, leaping at the apogee up the upswing, people puking whilst hanging upside down on the jungle gym and teenaged girls screeching, "Stop! Stop!" while being violently swung on the little red roundabout, and you have what amounts to a typical Claymont high school teenager party.

High school is a heady time. For some, it's the summit of their lives. Many people never experience the glory of life as they did in their high school years. Others, cocooned in their chrysalis of shyness and late blooming consider their high school years the worst time of their lives. For me, it was a little from Column A and a little from Column B. You see, the students who graduated from Claymont High School more or less grew up together. We went to Darley Road, Maple Lane or Green Street Elementary Schools, attended Claymont Middle School and/or P.S. DuPont Middle School and, eventually, dear old CHS. Many students were integrated into the environment with the advent of busing in the late 1970s while others came from some of the Catholic or private schools. The youth programs, such as Little League, football and basketball leagues further solidified the student community into an inescapable celebration for some and a prison for others. You see, with that environment, something humiliating that happened to you in third grade traveled with you until 12th. You might have changed as a person, but the perception of you did not. It's a cruel truth to face in the most fragile part of a boy's or girl's life. The pressure can create a diamond or a lump of coal. We were all geniuses in high school, and since this is the only life we knew, we figured we knew all about life. How wrong we were, just as wrong as the students of today will find themselves in due time.

Personally, I knew I could not wait to get out. I wanted a fresh start and to put the distasteful elements of my standardized schooling behind me. I didn't want to be around these people any longer. So, it might come as a bit of a surprise, when upon graduation, sitting on stage, I began to bawl like a grandmother. Where was this coming from? Why was I shedding tears for something I detested so much? In the movie , "Conspiracy," (a brilliant and chilling movie about the Holocaust) the one dissenting figure, Dr. Kritzinger, tells a story about how a man he knew, who lost the mother he adored. At her funeral, he could not find the tears; however, when his father, a man he hated, died, he wept uncontrollably. The man in the story, apparently, had been driven by hate his whole life, so when the object of his hate, his father, passed away, his hate died with him. He felt he had nothing else for which to live. I suppose that's how I felt, up on that stage 25 years ago. It's taken the mellowing of age, the appreciation of perspective and the understanding, that, despite knowing everything back then, I realize I know almost nothing today, to not only offer my forgiveness, but my apologies to the people, the institution and the life I had detested so many years ago. When I run into an old classmate these days, I don't think about the bad times; rather, I embrace the good times, the laughs of Margie Eachus and Bev Deloatch, the sinister snarkiness of Scott Frizzell and Rob Doherty, the country boy ramble of Bruce Lane and his car, "Bandit"...

Oh, I could go on. But you know what I'm talking about. It was in your high school too, and in your high school memories. I pushed away my high school years with both arms long enough. I now embrace those memories. Living in the past is not the place to increase you present real estate value; however, even if you don't want to live there, it's not a bad place to visit once in a while.

Even if it's only in your mind.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Claymont, Part 2

Claymont has always been a place that had a civic pride in things uniquely Claymont. I'm not necessarily talking about any famous landmarks such as the old library, Archmere Academy or the Christmas Weed. No, I'm talking about things we older Claymonters revere with whimsical nostalgia even if we were ambivalent - and maybe downright hostile - towards them in our youth.

How does the Tri-State Mall sound? Back in the day, it's where we hung out, in our Purple CHS jackets with gold lettering, filling up night after night, complaining how bored we were. The Mall was uniquely Claymont. It wasn't really shared as a hangout with any other Delaware school. Notice I said "Delaware" school because the good students of Chichester found a need to hang out there, too. Generally, the two schools kept their distance from each other, but, sooner or later, a cute girl from "Chi" would be talking to a "Claymonster" and before you knew it, a jealous boyfriend emerges from nowhere. Fists are thrown, bodega attendants are yelling and steady-handed bystanders are sneaking hash pipes from under the counter of Village Records in the confusion. Within a week, a simple scuffle gets the grapevine treatment and next thing you know, "oh-my-god!" teenagers are telling a tale of an all-out gang fight, with knives, chains and nuclear warheads; thousands killed, millions of dollars in damage and echoes of "When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way..." filling the air.

As much as we hated the Tri-State Mall, we sure as hell spent a lot of time there. Could there ever be a more delicious and disgusting pizza as you would get from the Orange Bowl? I don't know if that place had seats. Everything seemed to be like a lean-on-the-counter arrangement and lots of orange. LOTS of orange. The pizza itself had a thin crust so firm it could snap a bike chain. It was also heavily floured so when you burnt your mouth of the volcanic cheese, your tongue would magnetize to the bottom (thanks to the flour) so, in effect, you were destroying the roof of your mouth with every bite. Look at the roof of the mouth of any older Claymont folks and it resembles the ceiling of an abandoned farm house. But, ma-a-a-a-a-n, was that the best freakin' pizza in the world. I think they sold insanely-oversalted soft pretzels there, too. They must have had a secret deal with Coke or Pepsi. All that heavy salt and flour conspired in a way that if you didn't have enough money for a drink, you went somewhere else for food. I've seen some first-timers dehydrate in front of my eyes. They run to the doors and collapse in a heap of bones and dust like a time-challenged vampire.

Oh, there were other choices, to be sure. Just next door at Grant's (which then became Grant's City and then K-Mart...I think), they had a little restaurant. Grant's was a department store where you could find a perfectly good scarf in the toy section, a Ted Nugent Album in the bathroom accessories section and some woman smacking her kids so hard and with such skill she never lost the two-inch ash on her Benson & Hedges cigarette in EVERY section. They had a little lunch counter/restaurant thing. I can't remember what it was called, but I remember they had a mascot named Buddy Bradford. Think about that for a second. A department store lunch counter with a mascot they put on everything, including a plastic hand puppet of Mr. Bradford. Hell, Starbucks doesn't even have a mascot. Grant's was also the place of my Cub Scout undoing. Don't feel bad for me - I only signed up to get the knife. My brother, Dave, and I, were at Grant's doing our weekly shoplifting. With us, happened to be two of the baddest dudes around - I won't give their names, and if they are reading this, you know who you are! - who decided to turn on us, run back to our house and rat us out. Dave arrived at the house first. Me? Oh, I took my sweet old time getting home. I figured mom would be completely exhausted taking her anger out on Dave. The most I would get would be the residual. That was the end of my Cub Scout days and besides carving an Ivory Soap canoe, making the worst Soapbox Derby car in the history of the world and being able to legally carry a weapon, my scouting days were largely forgettable.

The Tri-State Mall had a few other unique facets to it, such as the Hong Kong Shop. It was one of those places that had a lot of glass, ceramic and tapestries. It always smelled sweet and intoxicating, almost to the point of being disorienting. The owners were always friendly, but suspicious - as they should have been - and you had to walk VERY carefully through the aisles because one trip over the shoe laces would have resulted in a cataclysmic cascade of every breakable thing in the universe. Me and my friends always flattened ourselves against the left-most wall and made a beeline towards the back corner where the black light posters were. Oh, there were non-black light posters there, like 500 posters of The Doors, a painting of a man holding a lantern with the lyrics to "Stairway to Heaven" and the six-panel "Stoned Again" cartoon. The black light posters were what kept you in the store five hours at a time. There were the multi-colored zodiac velvet posters, some giant, rainbow-themed Spiro-Graph-like drawing and some naked woman with a cheetah and a spectacularly-large afro. The room was small and had a curtain to accentuate the black light wonderfulness. Sometimes, we would just end up being fascinated with how freaky our teeth looked.

Further down the way was Village Records, which had everything - posters, clothing, mirrors, pinball machines and yes, even records. I still remember seeing a price tag on one of my dad's Emerson, Lake & Palmer albums for $4.00. That wasn't a sale price. It was the actual retail price. Bought my first album there, too - "Kiss Alive II" because, well, I rock. Between the Hong King Shop and Village Records, I probably spent a total of 8-9 years, if you add the hours together. And I'm going to get this out of the way now so I never have to revisit this again. In 11th grade, we had a school-wide fund-raiser Dance-a-thon for, I think, Muscular Dystrophy. I was determined to raise more money than anyone, and thanks to an out-of-the-blue donation of $10.00 from Paul Eckler, I barely edged out sophomore Amy Guderian. I was so focused on winning I didn't even think of the fact that, "oh ****, now I have to dance! I can't dance! And now I have to do this for 12 hours?" So there I was, doing the Cabbage Patch Dance, The Smurf and The Curly Shuffle - all with the patented white-man-overbite. Then came the dance contest where everyone formed an alley on both sides for contestants to dance down. I was forced into doing it against my will, especially with the delicious Donna Tenshaw being the judge (man, all the Tenshaw girls were lookers) but proceeded to groove my way down the path. I must have looked like The Joker wrestling a rogue fire hose. By the time I made it to the end, Donna was laughing so hard I thought she was going to snort. As it turned out, I actually won the dance contest, probably based on pure humor alone, and received a gift certificate to Village Records. I took that certificate, won on the musical stylings of "Bette Davis Eyes," "Centerfold," and "Pac-Man Fever" and bought an Ozzy Osbourne shirt. See? It all came around.

The movie theater was one of the best around, for first-run movies. There was even a balcony section where you could smoke, and smoke they did. Smoked things legal and illegal, drank and had their way with their partners. Not a movie went by when you wouldn't hear several empty bottle of something rolling down the aisle - and that was for the Benji movies. I saw Star Wars the first morning it opened - and proceeded to see it 20 more times in the theater. I've only gone to see a movie more than once with one other film (that's a lie, but, whatever) and that was when I went on a date with a girl I really didn't want to go out with, and took her to "Silence of the Lambs." Game. Set. Match. Anyway, it was great to get a large gathering of friends together to bellow, in unison, "Your lack of faith is disturbing," in between Jujubee fights. When I was older, we had another large contingent go see "Halloween II." It was a fun movie to watch with friends and the blood wasn't confined to the screen. The marvelously cute Bev Wilson literally lifted little Tim Troutman out of his seat when she dug her nails into his arm during the scary parts. Tim lost a pint of blood that night. I just have to add this other Tri-State Mall movie theater nugget. For anyone who remembers when "Porky's" came out, tell me you didn't laugh more during that film than any other. It's not the funniest movie around, although it was damned funny, but it was the funniest movie to watch in the theater. The Cherry Forever scene, Michael Hunt scene, the hysterical assistant gym teacher - and the legendary shower scene made you laugh yourself sober. Good times.

On the opposite side of the Mall from Grant's was Wilmington Dry Goods, which is worth mentioning primarily for the fun we used to have sliding down the escalator handrails. But something dark was at the bottom of those stairs...something sinister. There was a lower level, which was split-level and perpendicular to the main floor of the mall, like a strip mall super glued to the proper one. My mom used to work at the lamp store down there with some of the most amazing-looking women (including my mom). One night, when, thankfully, my mom wasn't working, two of them were robbed at gunpoint. There was a stairwell next to the lamp store which also led up to the main level. Mom arrived one morning to open the store and saw firemen hosing down the stairs. Apparently, one of the girls who worked at the massage parlor was blown away by some nut job (who was finally captured LAST YEAR) and they were cleaning up the aftermath. Mid-way up the stairwell was a recessed metal door, behind which was a highly exclusive massage parlor. I'm sure nothing illegal was ever happening back there, and even if I wasn't sure, I value my life too much even 25 years later to tell you what I really think. There was also a comic book shop on that lower level. Ever watch The Simpsons? Know who "Comic Book Guy" (Jeff Albertson) is? Well, THIS guy looked exactly like him - ponytail, goatee...stunning, really. Aside from having some of the more obscure comics and being a birthing ground for aspiring Dungeons & Dragons players, he had the most extensive collection of Playboy magazines - going back to the early 1960's. Even though we were nowhere near legal age, he still let us buy them. You know how it is when you're young - you go to buy a Playboy, look around first, check out the Sports Illustrated, flip through an Archie's comic, your eyes shifting this way and that - then, you gather all the possible nerve you possess and reach for the magazine. Then, you quickly slither your way to the register and get the hell out of there as soon as possible. You'd always buy a newspaper and maybe a MAD Magazine to provide some subterfuge in case you were ever approached. And yeah, I had the first Bo Derek issue.

Of course, you cannot celebrate the greatness of the Tri-State Mall without paying homage to the annual carnival, which occupied the southern third of the parking lot. The rides weren't half bad, actually, and the girls were amazing, in their feathered hair, dark eye shadow and roach clip earrings. The Midway games were your standard fare of duck ponds, darts and goldfish bowls. Spider rings were everywhere and if you were really good, you walked off with an Aerosmith clock or REO Speedwagon mirror. It was no Holy Rosary Carnival, that's for sure, but it was always a nice thing to see such a dark place lit up, and for a brief moment, magical.

Sometimes, I long for those semi-innocent days of the Tri-State Mall. The chance to flip those old Playboys on eBay for big bucks, actually buying a velvet Elvis at the Hong Kong Shop and perhaps getting to see what was on the other side of the big metal door in the stairwell. I also would like a chance to have another slice of pizza from the Orange Bowl with whatever is left of the roof of my mouth.

Even if I have to go to Chichester to get it.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Claymont, Part 1

I grew up in Claymont, Delaware. I was not born there; that dubious distinction falls on the unfortunate shoulders of Chester, Pennsylvania, but Claymont was home to me for almost all of my first 18 years on this planet. For many years after I left, I regarded it as a place best viewed in the rear-view mirror. I was fond of my own cheeky description when describing it to non-residents: "Claymont: A Nice Place to Leave." Slowly, as I have grown older and maybe a smidgeon more intelligent, I have come to regret those sentiments. I always regarded Claymont as a collection of bland, split-level houses, suspect apartment buildings and a biting resentment for the more affluent neighborhoods. I suppose that still exists to some degree today, but, if we're being honest here, the same could be said for almost every middle class suburban community in this country. Maybe it's taken me longer than most people to understand Claymont isn't defined by what lies in its borders, but who lives in it.

I have recently been in contact with some people from my past. This, naturally led to digging out and dusting off the old high school yearbooks - and in one case, an old middle school yearbook. What I saw shocked me. I realized the people with whom I attended school were actually some pretty likable folks. Some of them were downright terrific people. And the teachers, the ones I loathed and rebelled against so long ago were actually decent and often amazing people. It would be convenient and maybe even logically correct to tuck into my Claymont experiences by starting at the beginning, but memories played out in a chronological manner steal a little bit of the magic for me. Sometimes, it's just more emotionally satisfying to chase the rabbit down the hole and embrace whatever dirt gets kicked back into my face.

I grew up in a development known as Greentree. It was one of those 1960s-era sections perfect for the first post-World War II generation to buy an affordable house for less than $20,000. It's where the promise of newly-planted trees would deliver ample shade once the young parents of the day sent their children to college, the military or the working world a decade or two later. The streets were all named for different trees: Plum Tree, Elm Tree, Birch Tree, Walnut Tree, Peach Tree...well, you get the picture. It was Americana, with children's bike parades on the Fourth of July, Little League and flashlight tag, back when it was safe for young kids to be out, unattended, at night. Maybe it's me, but in the 1970's, it seemed there were more kids swarming throughout the neighborhood than a smacked hornet's nest. If you wanted to make mud pies, play street hockey or throw rocks at the train, you never had any difficulty finding several accomplices.

Oh that. Yeah, well, I cannot say I condone it now, but when were young, throwing rocks at the passing trains was one of our daily pastimes. The tracks were in the woods about 500 feet from my house. To hear the horn was similar to the sound of the Good Humor man in that dozens of kids high-stepped it out the door, all of us at top speed, to await our lumbering, metallic victim. The tracks had an endless supply of pirogue-sized rocks, perfect for winging. The goal was to hit the train as many times as possible and create a spark when one of the rocks hit a piece of metal JUST right. Our "station" was about 10 feet below the tracks on the west side of the slope. It was quite a sight. All these kids of varying ages rifling dangerous projectiles without any fear of danger, repercussion or common sense. The locomotive was always off-limits because, well, because we could get in trouble if the conductor slammed on the brakes. Never mind the fact by the time the train would stop, he would be miles away. We were just afraid of the railroad police which would patrol the tracks from time to time. The caboose, on the other hand, was not only fair game, it was the ultimate target. The caboose was legendary. There was always someone in the group who knew someone who knew someone who said there was a person who sat in the caboose waiting for smart-alecks like us, just aching for a chance to blast us with a salt rifle. For some reason, that never deterred us. If anything, it just made us more determined to knock the windows out of the caboose. How we all didn't end up in the Boy's Home is one of God's miracles.

We had a great cast of characters: Freddie and Donie (yes, he spelled it "Donie") Lang, who were two of the few African-American kids who would come around, the three Kevins - me, Kevin Smith and Kevin Grant, Greg Newton, Eddie Kupsick, Tommy Patton, Bobby Cook, Rich Piroli, Kenny Radke...the list was endless, but the one who made it his life's mission to enact as much anarchy wherever he went was my best friend, Raymond Butler. I'll get to him later, because he is worth an entire book by himself. Even my very first friend, Steve Jennings, who was 6 feet eight at birth and by all accounts one of the kindest, most decent people I have ever known, could get caught up in the excitement, hurling rocks at the train with such force they sucked the air out of your lungs when they whizzed over your head.

However, when trains weren't available, we needed something else to occupy our time. So what do adolescent boys do when they don't have easily-available trouble to get into? That's right, we created our own. There was a Wawa convenience store on the other side of the slope of the train tracks. We would buy or steal our daily supplies of chocolate milk, soda, chips, Tastykakes and candy and sit on the rails of the tracks, waiting for something to happen. Then, a funny thing would happen. No one would leave. No one would leave because the minute you descended the rock-covered slope and disappeared into the canopy of trees of the adjacent woods, someone - usually Freddy, but we were all guilty - would yell "Rock 'em!" and with that, dozens upon dozens of rocks would rain down in the projected direction of the kid who had the temerity to leave the boredom of a hot July day at the tracks to go do something else. When we weren't attempting to cold-cock our friends, our rock-throwing would be focused on the back of the mini-strip mall that housed the Wawa: Carpenter Station. There was a dance studio which would sometimes have the back door open for ventilation. Claymont was a blue collar town, which is another way of saying, "We mock what we don't understand." Culture, especially dancing, was lost on a bunch of scraggly-haired delinquents such as us. So, we responded in the best way we knew how, by trying to throw rocks through the back door of the studio. Can you imagine watching these dangerous missiles skipping across the floor as young girls are practicing their five positions, chassés and chaînés? When the prospect of being strangled by the dancers' fathers proved off-putting, we shifted our attention one door down to the back of the arcade.

It was known as "The Arc," but the official name was TJ's, I believe. The owner's father pretty much ran the place but we understood the "true" ownership was in the name of his infant grandson, for tax purposes. The back door was made of this very resonant aluminum, which, when struck by a rock, would make a sound so loud, neighbors several hundred yards away thought we dynamited a garbage truck. Eventually, you just want a place to hang out and even brainless miscreants like us realized we needed to find a more constructive way to be destructive; a better target, in other words. So, we chose each other.

We already had been used to having rocks showering down on us whenever we left the sanctity of the tracks. In time, you do things like try to pick off bottles we set up on the rails. Sometimes, we wouldn't wait for the person setting up to get out of the way, which was usually followed by "I'm going to kill you!" or "You son of a..." This eventually evolved - or devolved - into us breaking into teams maybe 30 yards away and firing rocks at each other. There was no malice intended; it was just a way to burn up the hours of a lazy summer afternoon. Sometimes, when it was just Ray and me, we would station ourselves 50 feet from each other and try to bean the other. We did have rules, though. You had to wait for the other guy to throw his rock first before your next throw, no decoy lobs in order to set up a kill shot, and skipping shots off the rail was worth double. So, there we would be, best friends trying to brain each other while talking about how this new guy, Dallas Green, was going to be a better or worse manager for the Phillies than Danny Ozark, the new Kansas album or when Ray was going to go back home and steal money from his mom's purse so we could grab a pizza pie in Northtowne Plaza next to the Super Saver grocery store.

While Ray and I could generate our own brand of mischief, sometimes it came gift-wrapped to us. Like many neighborhoods, people are always up in each others' business. My community was no different. When Gina Giantonio's house went up in flames on Elm Tree Lane, the crowd was so thick it was like people were waiting for Jesus himself to emerge from the flames. It was the social event of the season. Cute girls you always liked never failed to show up (I'm looking at you, Barb and Carol Tenshaw and Christine Lewandowski). Adult neighbors would be standing, cross-armed, shaking their heads at how disgraceful it was so many people are watching someone else's life being destroyed in full public view. The volunteer fire fighters were looked at like rock stars, including our friend, James Mayfield, a high school student and the first African-American volunteer fire fighter in Claymont. It had all the makings of a block party. All we needed was a hot dog cart, sparklers and someone selling t-shirts with iron-on decals of bug-eyed maniacs power-shifting over-sized GTO engines. Standing there with Ray, watching the Giantonios' house being destroyed wasn't really celebrating the fact, though. Not a single one of us didn't imagine our thoughts if it was our own house. Even Gina and her younger brother Nicky would have attended the burning of someone else's house. There was something intoxicating about sharing a terrible event with others. It brought the residents closer, in some weird way. A camaraderie gets forged, if only for a little while. These weren't necessarily bad people, and truth be told, we weren't evil kids. We simply had a destructive streak that was meant to fill the boredom of the days.

I think perhaps I held a distaste for Claymont because it held up a mirror to myself, of all the distasteful things I was in denial about in my own character, but I now realize circumstance and subjective limitations cloud the mind. These weren't bad people. In fact, we had some very good people. People like James Mayfield, Steve Jennings and the people who offered their help and support to the Giantonios, among many, many others. It's a reason I am returning to my roots to write this series of valentines to the place I called home for so many years and has shaped me, for better or worse, into the person I am today. I don't know where this road may lead, much as I did not know where it was leading all those years ago, but I want to invite you along with me to discover something that will exist within me forever and maybe give you a chance to visit a place of your own you may have left behind. It may not be the same location as mine, but it might be the same place:


Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Birth of Cool

We're at that time of the year where I like to mess with peoples' heads - the dead of Winter. Actually, that's a bit of a misnomer since the first day of Winter is tomorrow (Sunday)...

(A little aside here. As I was typing "Sunday," I actually typed "Sinday." Just thought you'd like to know that. Anyway, back to your story...already in progress)

Either way, folks appear to claim the start of December as the beginning of Winter by default. For those who worship the sun and carry an incandescent, nuclear glow year-round, Winter begins the day after Labor Day. For those who live at the Equator, they're too far away to matter for this story and aren't my target audience anyway. You see, I hate wearing pants. I'll pause while you think disgusting thoughts. What I mean is I love wearing shorts - year round, no matter the weather. Yes, I'm one of THOSE guys. We're usually single because we're insane. Friends, strangers and various domesticated animals give me the ol' wonk-eye when they see me easing my way into Best Buy or cruising the produce section of the supermarket in shorts while a Himalayan nightmare was piling up outside so fiercely the Abominable Snowman would be pounding on the store windows yelling, "Someone throw me a freakin' sweater!"

It's not like I'm trying to prove a point. I'm not one of those drunken chuckleheads you see at a Chicago Bears home game, shirtless and painted, with his 1970s-era sunglasses and wooly bear mustache boldly announcing "Bon Voyage" to his sanity for millions of us unfortunate viewers. For me, it's all about comfort. If I felt more comfortable wearing an admiral's hat and Buckingham Palace guard's jacket, I'd flit about town in that, but I can't pull of wearing red and I'm not much of a hat guy, anyway. My friend, Tim, is incredulous about this fact and continually tries to convince me to stop, which, of course, will never happen. As you know, I include my non-work friends in my stories, so if you're not familiar with Tim, consider this a primer.

Tim was a roommate of mine here, in Delaware and previously, in Cleveland. A relentless social dervish, Tim is easy to like, and if you don't like him, he'll eventually make you like him. When we lived in Cleveland, the Lake Effect Snow (capitalized, for your pleasure) was as unpredictable as a schizophrenic in a Hall of Mirrors. I recall driving to work and there being about six inches of snow on one side of the street and the other side of the street looking like a Frosted Mini-Wheat. I half-expected my alarm clock to go off after a purple tornado of vampires touched down in one of my tamer dreams. One fine March Sunday, we went down to the waterfront to listen to some bands and grab a bite to eat. It was in the mid-70s, I wasn't the only person in shorts and one could almost detect the faint smell of cocoa butter. Tim had a Jeep and put the top down, and for one glorious day in March, we were kings of the world.

Then came Monday. It snowed. Tim, rushing to get to work that morning, didn't have time to put the top up on his Jeep, and it was coming down pretty hard. Tim, in his suit, was struggled to keep hold of his Cool Points and by the time he arrived at work, he looked like a Sugar-Coated Businessman (again, capitalized, for your pleasure). This was back in 1994 and they're still thawing him out today. I'm just hoping he doesn't come back as Encino Man. If you haven't seen the movie, I'll save you the trouble of looking it up on Netflix and suggest you watch mold grow on your bread. Better plot, funnier and better acting.

Taking the Mind Shuttle (again, capitalized...never mind) back to Delaware. In Cleveland, and other snow-encumbered places, they're prepared for snow. As the first flake is about to hit the ground, the snow plows are already shifting out of first gear. Here, in Delaware, when one of the local Weather Guessers predicts snow, there is an almost biblical charge to the hardware stores and supermarkets. Everyone takes a large swig of Stupid and has a Dagwood-sized bite from the Irrational Overreaction Sandwich (...), it makes an 1800s cattle drive look like an Elementary School Halloween parade. In fact, I recall the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse hanging out in the parking lot trying to get anyone's attention:

War: "Um, hello! Excuse me. Can I just get your atten..."

Death: "Forget it, we can't handle this."

Famine: "Why are we in front of a grocery store? I'm FAMINE, remember?"

Pestilence: "Who's the idiot in the shorts?"

Weather does that to people. It turns relatively insane people more insane. People fighting over snow shovels, rock salt and canned peaches, everyone losing their minds and mentally filling out their wills as another Winter storm front lurks several hundred miles away. Survivalists laughing themselves silly from their rural fortresses, yelling to the television, "See? I TOLD you! But you wouldn't listen!" Meanwhile, I'll be home, kicked back in my shorts, eating whatever I can jimmy free from the sides of my refrigerator, completely oblivious to the pandemonium outside. When I'm hungry, I'll hitch up my shorts and start the car, secure in the knowledge that, since everyone else is bunkered down, I won't have to wait in line anywhere. You just have to keep your wits about you. See, it's one thing to be cold.

It's another thing entirely to be cool.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Give Up the Funk!

As a crotchety 40-something, I owe certain debts to society. One such debt happens to be my never-ending rebel yell railing against the state of music of the past 10 - 15 years. There is no shortage of bulls eyes on which to focus my high-powered assault rifle. It really isn't fair, to be honest with you. It's like challenging a convent of armless nuns to a tug-of-war with a dead water buffalo as my anchor man.

But, this isn't about snatching such low-hanging fruit. No, this is about the almost sudden and inexplicable disappearance of a treasured musical form. Now, before you make your usual incorrect guesses, let me first say it's not about the vanishing of heavy metal barbershop music, punk flugelhorn or country/western opera. It's the milk carton-worthy extinction of Funk.

There was a time you couldn't flip on an AM radio or tune into one of the UHF stations and not get your groove on to some of the most funkelectric sounds this side of George Clinton's mothership. Leading the parade would be the monstrously smooth Don Cornelius, he of the tinted-window shades, dazzling rings and Harvey's Bristol Cream voice, hosting another fuzzy-pictured session of Soul Train. You didn't even need to be a fan of Funk to get righteous with the mega-afroed cats bubbling out beats like an overheated cauldron, but it helped. When they got down with the showcase dance, or whatever it was called - you know the one where the dancers lined up across from each other while couples snapped and popped their way down the middle - there wasn't a single two-legged, multi-celled organism who could resist playing air bass watching all those wide lapels, towering platforms and thick belts groove their way into your living room.

And the acts! Parliament-Funkadelic, Earth, Wind & Fire, Heatwave, Curtis Mayfield, Sly & the Family Stone, Kool & the Gang, The O'Jays, The Brothers Johnson and even Stevie Wonder - he of the highly dangerous and should-be-outlawed "Ebony and Ivory" - could crank out the funk like it was nobody's business. It wasn't just music, it was a block party clocking in at four minutes and thirty seconds per song. Even a miserably uncoordinated jester like yours truly would have the money-maker cranked up to "Full Boogie," knocking unread Social Studies books, Little League trophies and Aqua Velva bottles across the room.

Some would blame rap music for Funk's demise, but I can't get behind that. The Gang from good ol' Sugar Hill, Newcleus, Cameo, Melle Mel, The Gap Band, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five and the irrepressible Kurtis Blow were early to the rap scene without sacrificing any of the funk. And if you still think Funk wasn't a major player in the 80s, look up the Purple Lord of Funk, Prince, or whatever hieroglyphic he goes by these days, and his stable of proteges, including Sheila E and the Clown Prince of Sex-ay, Morris Day and The Time. Oh, there have been recording artists out there who have tried to resuscitate and kick-start funk by paying homage to the masters (I'm looking at you, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jamiroquai), but it just was never able to get off the disabled list once grunge, gangsta rap, prefabricated pop and the Coor's Light-drinking/khaki-wearing/SUV-driving/play-dates-for-the-kids, doughy, middle class-embraced Hootie, Dave Matthews, Matchbox 20 and soundalikes (of which there are several million) started clogging up the airwaves like an airport toilet.

I always believed then, and I still believe now, music shouldn't be a passive experience. It has to be pulled out of the listener. Sometimes it is caressed out of your heart; sometimes it is hypnotically teased from your soul; and sometimes...sometimes, it explodes from every pore on your body. That's what Funk does. It turns you inside out, like a hand grenade in a microwave. Know that expression, "Dance like no one is watching?" well THAT is what Funk does to you. It's arms, legs, booty, head, the whole magilla, not unlike when you were young and, as a joke, told your loudest aunt she had a hornet hovering around her head. You never thought you could see a woman her size move like that. She was a double-knit blur.

While it's true the best Funk was primarily generated from the legends of the African-American community, Funk's appeal crossed racial lines, genders and socio-economic classes. Don't believe me? Then tell me, wasn't that YOUR mom, uncle or grandmother spilling their scotch and soda onto the dance floor at your cousin's wedding while singing, "Play that funky music, white boy!..." wildly off-key? Yeah, thought so.

I dream of a day when Funk is resurrected, when I can flip through the high-definition channels of the satellite television and stumble upon between five and fifteen dudes in matching multi-color outfits, wild sunglasses and big whacked-out afros with lasers and smoke, all of them grooving the same dance steps in time. I'll crowbar my ragged carcass off the couch, reach for a broom handle and pop and groove right along with them, knocking Sudoku puzzles, lottery tickets and bottles of Gold Bond across the room. No matter what else is going on in my life and whatever worries I might have - the economy, rising unemployment, nations who wish us harm - will disappear for that four minutes and thirty seconds of Boogie Bliss.

I can't move without groovin' and I'll be groovin' 'til I'm done. I'll be groovin' to the funk.

Can't have "Funk" without "Fun".